Birdland Neighborhood Revitalization: Charting the Course

In 1993, the wall that protects northern Des Moines neighborhoods from the stretch of river cutting through the city was breached. As the levee failed and the water spilled in, streets and homes were drowned in the flood.

For the residents of this community, it seemed like a disaster that would require a long road of rebuilding. Families sold their land and relocated, properties were demolished, and vacant lots became aching reminders of what had been lost. Despite the destruction, many members of the community still held on to the hope that things would return to the way they were before.

Then, fifteen years later in 2008, in the heavy rains and snow melt that often come with the changing Iowa seasons, the same disaster struck again. Water once again over-ran buildings, homes, businesses, and ways of life. For many, to rebuild yet again was too much.

A neighborhood once supporting 270 homes dropped below 60.

Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity once called this neighborhood home. To see the devastation was not only disheartening, but a motivating force behind the vision that something could be done — something special — in the years following the 2008 flood.

In 2011, the Army Corp of Engineers certified a rebuilt levee. And now that preventative measures are in place and protection from floods are ensured for the foreseeable future, GDM Habitat has begun a journey into the revitalization of Birdland for the long haul.

Spring 2017: repair homes with the Rock the Block® Projects.
Summer 2017: build ten Habitat homes along Watson Avenue.
2018: construct a pocket neighborhood of 23 homes, walking paths, and a playground.

To make this all possible, we will have to leverage all our greatest strengths. Our knowledgeable and patient framework of staff. Our dedicated volunteer base and community members who are coming out for a day of work with us. Our sponsors who fuel the fire.

Bringing all of these projects to completion using primarily the hands and hearts of volunteers takes a certain amount of planning and focus. I have been with Habitat in Des Moines for 6 months now and I am starting to see all the dedicated partnerships of this project come together to make hope a reality for our community.

As we undertake this incredible process in helping to rebuild and revitalize a historic Des Moines neighborhood, we wanted to share the perspectives of those who are making all of this happen. Follow along as we tell the renewal story of Birdland.

Some mornings, when I wake with a little extra energy, I get to the office before the sun does. Most of the time, our front desk assistant Karen has the door unlocked, the lights on, and the first pot of coffee brewing by the time my car pulls in to park.

This morning, though, March 28th, the front door is still locked. I take my things and squeeze in past the gate that opens to the back storage lot so I can get in through the back door. Kim, our longest standing construction manager, will be sitting at the construction counter sharp for the day.

On my way to greet him, though, I walk along the warehouse and our covered storage that holds all of the walls.

Watson 1.
Watson 4. 
Watson 7.

I can see the large stacks of wood and blue foam and OSB that will soon enough be stood along Watson Avenue in the Birdland neighborhood on the North Side of Des Moines. Each of these pre-built stacks sits encouragingly, spray painted in black letters, like a road map of a home that will soon be built.

Last year, we built the walls.

In May 2017, we stand these walls, give them shape and life, and connect the skeletal system of nine homes to the spine of Watson Avenue.

By June, we hope to bring out the paint brushes and the trim tools and place in the grass and rock.

I can see it on many faces as our staff collaborate in this planning process — this is a huge undertaking. It promises to be both arduous and meaningful. By the end of it all, we hope that countless families will be positively impacted by the ripple-effects of a better neighborhood and place to call home.

We want you to come along for the ride.

How? Follow us and our stories here on Medium or check out GDM Habitat’s work on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. Share this page on your social media sites.

To check out volunteer opportunities or to learn more about making a difference for low-income families in our community, visit our website at

To share a volunteer story with us, please email me at